What will the next half-century bring for this tiny Asian tiger?

Prime Minister David Cameron is set to make a speech at Singapore’s School of Public Policy tomorrow morning as part of his tour around South East Asia. Cameron says he wishes to form stronger trade links with the region due to the increasingly rapid growth of its markets.

Now the fourth wealthiest city per capita in the world, ranking above both the United States and the United Kingdom, Singapore has become known as one of Asia’s economic “tigers”, managing to side-step several regional crises and the world banking crisis of 2009; so it is perhaps unsurprising that Mr. Cameron has decided to look beyond the countries of the EU which have faced decidedly less favourable economic fates in recent years.

Singapore is currently preparing for its annual National Day celebration which takes place on 9th August. This is a celebration which is even more noteworthy this year as 2015 brings the 50th anniversary of this rather unassuming country’s independence. In this truly global city-state, the majority of the populace wield the undeniably advantageous weapon of being able to speak both English and Mandarin. Indeed, with its authentically multicultural approach, this tiny country has come a long way since it was thrown from Malaysia, into the Southeast Asian sea of independence in 1965. Since its somewhat reluctant birth as an independent nation, this modern city-state has grown into an undeniable success story.

Our own country, which we perceive to be relatively little, still somewhat dwarfs Singapore at 340 times its miniscule size. However, given our own contemporary context, in which on-going economic woes and “homegrown terrorists” – the rise of which Mr. Cameron attributes to the segregation of communities within the populace, which arguably signals a failure of multiculturalism in the U.K. – this seems like a good time to reflect upon the basis for Singapore’s relative success. Even a fleeting glance at these two countries begs the question: is Singapore’s success due to the country’s undemocratic approach? And is true multiculturalism incompatible with democracy, particularly given the reality that democracy is inherently intertwined with liberalism and therefore unavoidably favours certain cultures above others?

Western-style democracy, which boasts the medals of individualism, freedom and liberal rights, has been unapologetically absent from the history of this country. Indeed, during a National Day celebration 29 years ago, Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and first Prime Minister of Singapore, spoke of the country’s success: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” (The Straits Times, April 20, 1987).

I do wonder though, is Singapore’s success during its first half-century about to become the maker of its own ruin? The polished (literally) city-state has produced an undeniably well-educated and successful populace in which a true diversity of ideas have been able to bounce off one-another. However, this kind of multiculturalism exposes citizens to increasingly diverse points of view which, fuelled by the rise of social media, may create a certain kind of restlessness amongst its intelligent population which is in many ways tied down by its authoritarian form of politics. Developments within the international arena in which Singapore has flourished will affect the country too – the most notable being the shifting balance of power between the big international powers of the U.S. and China.

What lies ahead in the next half-century for this tiny Asian tiger is largely unknown, the only thing for certain is that by the ripe old age of 100 Singapore may look rather different.

Image courtesy of Randy Tan via Flickr


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